I have avoided making any public pronouncements on the abject failure of the Westminster government during the Coronavirus crisis.
Achieving both the highest death rate per capita in the world while doing the greatest economic damage are devastating statistics that speak for themselves.
No.10 and its advisers could not have been more woeful in its early response and, incredibly, they are getting worse as we reach the tail end of the pandemic.
I have followed guidelines throughout: staying home, keeping 2 metres apart and wearing a face mask on public transport among measures to which I adhered. I also closed my office and my team of 16 have been working — brilliantly — from home.
The public’s behaviour has been excellent throughout, which is why we are finally down to around 500 new cases per day, and fewer than 80 deaths.
I have been itching to get life and business back to normal as soon as possible, but have gone at the pace set by the regulations.
Thankfully, last weekend, we were permitted to go on holiday for the first time, so I jumped in the car and drove via the Channel Tunnel to France where I spent a blissful four days in Beaune in the famous Burgundy wine region.
I was not sure what I would find, because France imposed an earlier and harder lock down, but had been open for business again for longer and its rate of new cases and deaths from Covid-19 are lower than the UK’s.
I could not have been more delighted. The town was buzzing with locals and tourists enjoying the cafes, restaurants and bars. Most were outside in the warm sunshine, but the shops were doing brisk trade and there were few restrictions. On a day trip to the city of Lyon, it was just as open and welcoming.
There were some residual signs of the pandemic, particularly in shops where the now familiar distancing stickers were used and sanitiser was available.
Whether customers were required to wear face masks in shops was at the discretion of shopkeepers, and most did not insist. In the supermarkets, the proportion of people wearing face masks was about the same as in England. In high street shops, around a quarter insisted on masks for customers. Far more had protection for their staff.
It is hard to convey just how different the town felt. I had not realised how much the lock down in England had affected my mood until I felt the euphoria of freedom. Not having to endure the BBC’s relentless fear-mongering probably helped as well.
Returning to the UK yesterday to be told that face masks are going to be mandatory was devastating.
Don’t misunderstand me, face masks might help and I do not object to wearing them per se. The issue is that, at a time when we need to breed confidence and optimism so that this consumer-driven economy starts consuming again, it felt like the country is on the retreat in a war that we are actually winning. The messaging is all wrong, and once again it was spoon-fed, unchallenged, by our media.
Shops have been open in England for precisely a month, today, and the Covid statistics have gone in the right direction across the entire month. Reopening has been an unqualified success, from a healthcare perspective, the issue is that customers have not been returning to shops fast enough.
I have heard the argument that mandatory masks will give customers more confidence and they will go out and shop more. I doubt it. My experience from France tells me that happy people spend, and forcing people to believe that they should be ruled by fear will not move the needle in the right direction.
I hope I am wrong.
If masks help, then why not let retailers decide whether to make them mandatory, which is pretty much the situation today?
This would allow employers to use masks among the many measures they adopt to protect staff and customers, but it would not be a regressive step generating appalling headlines that drain any rising confidence from the public.